If there were to be a motto for the world’s medical and scientific ‘experts’ who opine on the future of the current pandemic, it should surely be Umberto Eco’s words out of the mouth of William of Baskerville, “Rather than appear foolish afterwards, I renounce seeming clever now.”
The three little words which the ‘experts’ seem unable to utter are “I don’t know”. There are a few others words they could, with some modesty, add: “and nor do any of my colleagues.” But they cannot resist the siren call to “seem clever now.”
From the beginning of the pandemic, my professional response has been simple: “We don’t know and will need months or years to gain the knowledge.” During the first year and a half, my colleagues have learnt a lot, especially about how the virus enters and damages us.
I use the words ‘know’ and ‘knowledge’ in the same sense as saying “the force which holds us to the earth is gravity”, “the earth is a globe”, and “an acid and an alkali will react to form a salt and water”. That is knowledge, not theory, hypothesis nor conjecture. Those are facts, true knowledge.
We do not know how the COVID-19 virus began to spread to humans; we do not know all the circumstances in which it spreads from one human to another; we do not know why some people are naturally immune to the virus, despite being closely exposed to it; we do not know how to protect ourselves from exposure; we do not (yet) know the efficacy of the many vaccines being used around the world. Most importantly perhaps, we do not know how the virus is mutating so rapidly – alpha, gamma, delta, lambda, mu. We do not know what protection the current vaccines will give against those emerging strains.
But humans look for certainty, not appreciating that there is no certainty in life. As Proust pointed out in The Guermantes Way, death could be around the next corner – today.
The general uncertainty makes me think of September 3, 1939, when Chamberlain declared war on Germany. The uncertainty of that day lasted six years.
It also makes me think of the great ‘Spanish Flu’, which lasted three years. Why should this pandemic be any shorter than that one?
So I appeal to any readers to accept, as calmly as they can, the simple fact that we health professionals do not know. Please do not take ‘expert opinions’ as statements of fact.